Golf: Duval drives on towards the Masters

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A WEEK after David Duval achieved a momentous victory in a gruelling week at The Players Championship, the 27-year-old American confirmed his status as world No 1 and hot favourite for this week's US Masters by winning the BellSouth Classic.

On this occasion, luck and the beneficence of his opponents handed Duval his 11th win without having to reach the maximum efficiency he managed in Florida and will need again this week at Augusta. The $450,000 (pounds 275,000) cheque for his fourth win of the year took Duval to over $2.5m in 1999 and past his own record for earnings in a season set last year.

A final round of 67 gave Duval a total of 18 under par and a two-stroke win over Stewart Cink, with John Huston and Rory Sabbatini one further back. Sabbatini, a rookie from South Africa whose exuberant personality endeared himself to the gallery, saw his dream of playing at Augusta six months after turning professional fade only over the closing two holes.

Cink, who likes the TPC of Sugarloaf so much he has bought a house on the 14th hole, and Huston held the lead for most of the day until both failed to match par at the 16th and 17th. Duval, who chipped in at the 15th, and Sabbatini both birdied the hole to move one shot clear.

Sabbatini's rollercoaster ride took one last downward turn as he took a six at the 17th, finding the trees on the right with his approach and then three-putting. The 23-year-old went for broke at the last but put his second shot into the water. Duval, unaware of what was happening in the group behind, then saw his ball stop on the bank of the pond, just as Fred Couples had at the 12th when winning the Masters in 1992. "I was fortunate," Duval said. "I was thinking I could end it then and there."

Claiming a green jacket is next on Duval's agenda. "I'm looking forward to it. The biggest obstacle I have is getting enough rest and making sure I am ready to play on Thursday." Duval will probably not play a practice round at Augusta until Wednesday. "The golf course is not the same on Monday and Tuesday as it is on Thursday," he noted. Duval has already acquainted himself with the changes at Augusta in two practice rounds last month.

As an exercise in boosting the confidence of British golfers going into the Masters, the final round was less than successful. Colin Montgomerie closed with a 76, making Europe's No1 a combined 19 over par for the last day of his four tournaments in America.

"I lost interest at the end," said Montgomerie, who bogeyed the last three holes. "Nothing was happening. I didn't have any confidence going into the weekend, and I haven't got any leaving it. This was my 16th round in the States and the 16th time I've putted badly."

As for the Masters, where Montgomerie has often struggled before finishing eighth last year, the Scot said: "I'm not worried about next week. It hasn't worked out in the past and if it doesn't work out this time, it'll be no different. I'm not going there with any expectations, I'm just going to play. It is just another tournament. I might do well, I might not."

While Nick Faldo closed with a 72, Ian Woosnam was so frustrated with his putting that he handed over his putter to a nine-year-old boy in the gallery after his 75. "My short game is diabolical. It is driving me nuts," the Welshman said. "What is disappointing is that I am beginning to hit the ball better, but I can't get the ball in the hole."

Woosnam will contemplate returning to the broomhandled version at Augusta but more importantly will first get treatment for the back injury he suffered on Friday. "My back is sore more than anything else," he said.

Results, Digest, page 11